Because the Donehoo-Brannen-NeSmith mansion is a private home, most Statesboro residents have only glimpsed its stone steps, wide porch and fluted columns while traveling down Savannah Avenue. However, over the next few days, the neoclassical house's air of mystery will be lifted, granting locals an up-close look at the home and its contents as the owners open their lawn for an estate sale, placing several generations of antiques and family heirlooms up for purchase.
"There are things that are more practical, like for kitchen use, and then there are lots of things that are more collectible. It ranges the gamut," said Caroline Harless, one-half of the brother-sister pair that now owns the mansion. She and her brother, Roy Otwell, inherited the estate in April after their stepfather, Col. E. Archie NeSmith, passed away.
This will be the first in a series of sales to clear out some of their family's old possessions, from the antique and elegant to the eclectic and exotic — furniture, lamps, light fixtures, glassware, flatware, figurines, paintings, portraits, clothing, packing cases and steamer trunks, among plenty of other curiosities.
The sale also will feature items NeSmith and his wife, Dr. Caroline Mary Brannen NeSmith, picked up during their travels around the world, including oriental screens from Vietnam and Southeast Asia and a Turkish shoeshine kit. Shoppers and treasure hunters will be able to browse china handpainted by Harless' mother, along with the house's old ceramics kiln. They also will find a family's eccentricities, such as the colonel's collection of clowns.
Harless, who has lived in the mansion on and off since her childhood, remembers many of the pieces for sale as having been in the house since she was very young. While the chaotic array of furniture and tables, bearing the weight of keepsakes and heirlooms of generations, is a delightful sight to the buyer's eye, it brings a tinge of sadness and nostalgia for Harless and her brother.
"It's painful, on one hand," Harless said. "But on the other, (my parents) would enjoy this."
She said her mother and the colonel enjoyed going to garage sales and estate sales.
"They would call it 'plundering.' 'Let's go plundering' — and yeah, they plundered."
If walls could talk
The mansion was constructed in 1917, replacing a house that had burned in 1915. It was designed by Georgia architect Edward C. Hosford, who also designed the Bulloch County Courthouse in addition to other courthouses and buildings throughout Georgia, Florida and Texas.
At the time, the home was owned by prominent Statesboro resident Dr. James E. Donehoo, who lived there with Mrs. Maxie Olliff Donehoo, formerly Mrs. Maxie Olliff Foy, and their blended family of seven children. The family sold the mansion in the Roaring '20s, and it fell into neglect during the Great Depression. It was repurposed in 1940, when Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal program used it to house and train local young people in the National Youth Administration, which educated them in agriculture and home economics.
In 1942, Mr. Irvin A. and Mrs. Carrie Mae Brannen, Harless' grandparents, purchased the house as their family home. Carrie remembered the house that stood on the lot before the mansion from her college days; she used to attend parties there while she was a student at Brenau College in Gainesville before she graduated in 1912. The Brannens immediately began renovating the mansion and grounds, eventually returning it to a hub of social activity in the community.
Harless has fond memories of the home going back to her childhood, when she and her siblings would visit her grandparents.
"We loved to come here and play, as most children would," she said.
With a laugh, she recounted the time she got stuck in the chicken house that used to stand in the side yard.
Growing up, she saw the house go through many changes and renovations as her grandparents fixed it up. When Harless was in grammar school, her grandmother and aunt rented the second and third floors out during a housing shortage at Georgia Southern College. At one time, Harless said, Carrie Mae Brannen had 19 Georgia Southern boys living in the upper floors of her house, "all the way up to the ceiling."
"Their cars were everywhere," Harless said. "It was a fun place, because they were coming and going all the time. … It was like a dormitory with a house mother."
Harless lived in the house during her late high school years and while she was a student at Georgia Southern, where she studied for her master's degree. She periodically returned to visit after her grandparents' deaths, when the estate was split between Harless' mother, Dr. NeSmith, and her aunt and uncle. In 1986, Dr. NeSmith bought the interests of her siblings and moved into the mansion with her second husband, Col. NeSmith, after the couple retired. They filled the house with memorabilia from their travels during Archie's time in the military. Caroline also set to work getting the Donehoo-Brannen-NeSmith mansion included on the National Register of Historic Places; her success is marked by the plaque on the mansion's gates.